For months, China’s visible construction of artificial islands and military facilities in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) has alarmed US officials and many of China’s neighbors. What is happening under the water is also worrisome, say several defense and security analysts.
China has a growing fleet of nuclear submarines armed with ballistic missiles. The expansion of its claim on the West Philippine Sea may be intended to create a deep-water sanctuary–known in military parlance as a “bastion”–where its submarine fleet could avoid detection.
“The South China Sea would be a good place to hide Chinese submarines,” said Carl Thayer, a US-born security specialist who has taught at the University of New South Wales and other Australian institutions. The sea floor is thousands of meters deep in places, with underwater canyons where a submarine could easily avoid detection.
Conflicts in the West Philippine Sea are expected to be a major focus of annual US-China talks that started on Tuesday in Washington, including meetings between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang. (See related story on page C3)
The Philippines and Japan flew patrol planes near disputed waters for the second straight day on Wednesday, defying Chinese warnings.
A Japanese P-3C Orion and a Philippine Navy Islander aircraft conducted a search and rescue drill 50 nautical miles (92.6 kilometers) northwest of Palawan, officials said.
While the flight was in the general direction of the resource-rich Recto (Reed) Bank claimed by both the Philippines and China, officials refused to say if the planes flew directly over the area.
Following a similar flight on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang warned against hyping the navy drills, suggesting they could undermine stability in the region.
Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force commander Hiromi Hamano told reporters that Wednesday’s joint training exercise was a success, shortly after the spy plane landed at Antonio Bautista Airbase in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan.
“I think it is important to continue HADR (humanitarian and disaster response), SAR [search and rescue] training with the Philippine Navy,” he said.
The surveillance plane crew did not observe anything unusual in the waters, Hamano also told reporters.
Malacañang said Beijing should not worry about the drills.
“The Philippines has had these exercises before with our strategic partners,” its deputy spokesman Abigail Valte said in a statement. “It should not be taken as an affront to any other and is an expression of cooperation and learning from all those involved.”
Wednesday’s flight was a “search and rescue activity,” Philippine Navy spokesman Commander Lued Lincuna told Agence France-Presse.
China last week announced that it was winding down its expansion of artificial islands in the South China Sea, but the statement was not warmly received by US officials.
Daniel Russel, Assistant US Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, noted that China continues to build facilities on the islands, including military installations, a move that he said was “troubling.”
“The prospect of militarizing those outposts runs counter to the goal of reducing tensions.” Russel said last Thursday during a briefing in Washington. “That’s why we consistently urge China to cease reclamation, to not construct further facilities, and certainly not to further militarize outposts in the South China Sea.”
The South China Sea–bounded by Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines and Malaysia–is one of the world’s most important shipping lanes. China asserts it holds maritime rights to 80 percent of the sea, a claim that other countries have vigorously contested.
According to Thayer, Beijing sees the South China Sea as a strategic asset because it guards China’s southern flank, including a submarine base in Sanya, on China’s Hainan island. The Chinese Navy has built underwater tunnels there to quietly dock some of its submarines, including those that carry ballistic missiles.
As of 2014, China had 56 attack submarines, including five that were nuclear- powered. It also has at least three nuclear-powered submarines capable of launching ballistic missiles, and is planning to add five more, according to a Pentagon report released last year.
In an April media briefing in Washington, a top US Navy official said the Pentagon is watching China’s ballistic submarines “very carefully.”
“Any time a nation has developed nuclear weapons and delivery platforms that can range the homeland, it’s a concern of mine,” said Adm. William Gortney, the commander of the US Northern Command. Gortney added that China has a policy of “no first use” of nuclear weapons, “which gives me a little bit of a good news picture there.”
In recent decades, China has worked to build up a nuclear deterrence capability in the shadow of that developed by the United States and Russia. Its submarine program is a major part of that push. Since submarines can often avoid detection, they are less vulnerable to a first-strike attack than land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles or nuclear bombers.
Currently, China’s JL2 submarine ballistic missiles lack the capacity of reaching continental United States from the South China Sea. But China hopes to improve the range of those missiles in coming years, which is why analysts think China sees the sea as a future “bastion” for its nuclear submarines.
Chinese submarines are known for being relatively noisy–and thus easy to detect– making it difficult for them to slip into the western Pacific without being detected. But once China improves the range of its missiles, it won’t need to move its submarines out of the South China Sea to pose a retaliatory threat to the United States.
AFP, TNS, CATHERINE S. VALENTE AND BERNICE CAMILLE V. BAUZON